Book Preview/Giveaway: Sam Harris, Revisited
A new essay anthology takes the pop philosopher to school.
Last year, it was my pleasure to contribute to the debut volume in a new series from Carus Books, “Critical Responses to…” which aims to assemble an eclectic array of academic takes on various popular public intellectuals. The first volume focused on Jordan Peterson. When editor Sandra Woien first solicited an essay from me, I was still writing under my pen name, and so this would mark the second time I was published in a print essay anthology on Jordan Peterson as “Esther O’Reilly.” (You can buy that volume on Kindle here and preview my contribution here.) However, by the time I was approached for the next anthology in the series, I was proud to be able to contribute in my own name. The subject of this volume, just out on Kindle today, is none other than New Atheism’s old favorite poster boy, Sam Harris.
Some might wonder about the utility of a volume like this just now, given that it’s 2022, and given that Harris has never wanted for debate partners over the years. For one thing, Sam is an opinionated fellow who’s said a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, and most of the credentialed people with intelligent things to say about said stuff aren’t going to appear on a debate stage with him. So, this is an efficient way to showcase some of their critiques, in one neat, accessible package. For another thing, for all New Atheism stopped being the New Hotness long ago, it didn’t so much fall out of fashion because people were convinced Sam Harris and friends were wrong about atheism. It fell out of fashion for a complex intersection of reasons, half of which were more political than religious.
The rise of Jordan Peterson shed a new light on all of this, which was the focus of my contribution to the Peterson volume, “Missing God: Jordan Peterson and the Decline of Atheism.” I gave Harris his due in the course of that essay, noting that, as flimsy as his own project was, he could still ask certain questions Peterson wasn’t prepared to answer.
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Sam’s frustration in that dialogue, with which I could somewhat sympathize, was that Peterson was defining himself out of a clear conception of God, faith, or even truth. Where Sam was full of atheist missionary zeal to make sure people weren’t believing false things, in his eyes Peterson seemed to lack all conviction. That same frustration echoes through essays like this one by Freddie deBoer, who is positively screaming for someone to tell him why any of this matters, if none of this is true. I wrote a response essay the last time Freddie wrote this essay. It seems to be turning into an annual tradition.
Back to Sam: I found it particularly interesting to watch the way he asked Peterson to affirm or deny the resurrection live on stage. Nobody could have failed to sense the underlying status game. With this question, Harris was inspecting Peterson’s membership card for “the Society of Rational Modern Men, Here.”
Peterson’s refusal to answer, and subsequent evasion of similar questions through the years, signals something important, I think. Something besides the fact that Peterson is an intensely private man who loathes status games, though he is certainly that. But it also signals to me that Peterson is a profoundly conflicted man. All his deepest intuitions, intuitions that are far more sensitive and better trained than Harris’s, are telling him that Harris is wrong. At the same time, he and Harris are not so different, in that both of them are modern men, and so both of them accept that certain ideas won’t pass muster in the Society of Rational Modern Men, Here. Or at least, not until they’ve been tortured into a shape so awkward and strange as to be unrecognizable. This is the quiet part that Harris wanted Peterson to say out loud, if Peterson had been willing to play along.
At this point, Peterson’s instinct (which is much like the historian Tom Holland’s instinct, though they never consulted each other about it), has been to troll the secular rationalists by suggesting that everyone is really being irrational together. All you secular humanists, too. Thought you were swearing off irrational articles of faith by sticking with assertions about human dignity, did you? Ha! Think again, sunshine! No, of course Christianity isn’t rational, but then again, is anything we do really rational? Maybe Christianity is just one more variant of irrationality, and a pretty damn benign one too. Eh?
This is clever, charming stuff, and depending on the context it can be quite moving stuff. A lot of people are compelled by it. But some people are left feeling more like Freddie deBoer, wondering who’s going to just answer the damn resurrection question already. And for all that Freddie’s inner old New Atheist might still chase someone like me out the door for being a bigoted conservative what-not, I still think someone who can actually represent Christianity owes him a better answer.
My main contribution to this anthology is my attempt at the beginning of a better answer. It’s not new, really. Nothing too fancy. Nothing that hasn’t been said before. I just think we need to keep finding good ways of saying it: Sam Harris’s career—and by extension the entire New Atheist project—was built on a false dichotomy between “faith” and “reason.”
In fairness, this is a false dichotomy which some Christian subcultures openly embrace, making the task of the Christian apologist that much more burdensome. Even William Lane Craig, Harris’s best-known Christian debate opponent, has proposed that Christians must ultimately rely on “the internal witness of the Holy Spirit” to bridge epistemological gaps. This is less than satisfying even for sincere Christians who personally haven’t experienced this particular sort of “internal witness.” Which is no slight to Christians who believe they have, by the way. I may not be among them, but I take them seriously, and I would never dare to pronounce a ceiling on God’s willingness or ability to announce Himself to man—especially around Christmastime. But whatever individual revelations God does or doesn’t choose to provide, I propose that regardless, there is no such thing as “Christian” epistemology. There is just good epistemology and bad epistemology. And what’s sauce for the atheist goose is sauce for the Christian gander.
So that’s my main contribution in a nutshell. But wait, there’s more: a second essay, jointly written with doctoral student and fellow teacher Michael Barros, which treads more into the musty familiar realm of apologetics proper. Here we revisit Harris’s adventures in biblical criticism, which have consisted in the main of skimming off the top of Bart Ehrman’s popular books. We take as our primary focus a passage on miracles from The Moral Landscape, in which Sam waves his hands airily in Ehrman’s direction, says some breathless stuff about David Hume’s “everlasting check,” and triumphantly declares checkmate. Again, we make no grand claim to originality for much of this essay, as so many of the skeptical claims here are so facile that they have already been debunked multiple times. Still, we hope it serves as a handy reference guide on the lay of the land when it comes to textual variations, etc. In addition to my co-author’s thorough legwork here, I contributed a sketch of how Christians might reclaim the forward position in defending the holistic reliability of New Testament source texts.
Now, technically, that part is not new either. But Christian readers might detect in it a departure from the sort of pre-packaged “minimal facts” argument that’s typified much popular apologetics. They will detect rightly. This argument, which claims to prove the resurrection using only “five facts granted by a majority of scholars,” is one of those odd fads that keeps missing its social cues to leave when it’s long overstayed its welcome. Curious non-Christians who have no idea what I’m talking about can safely skip it, and Christians who like it are almost certainly confused about what it actually does—no offense to them, because it’s been presented confusingly. But it’s finally on its way out now, and I would like to think that a return to an older, bolder apologetic is the wave of the future. I’m proud to do my part in moving that discourse forward. For further reading, I encourage curious readers to check out resources like Peter Williams’s Can We Trust the Gospels?, several acclaimed books and a podcast by my mother, Lydia, and a wealth of classic works by writers whose force has not lessened with time. Being dead, William Paley yet speaketh.
Now for the “giveaway” part of all this: Carus is continuing its practice of paying me in author copies, for which I would like to find some loving homes with people who prefer their books between covers. I am reserving three for the next three readers who purchase an annual subscription to the Stack ($50 for a year, which is a $10 savings on the month-by-month rate of $5). The paperback is slated to release in about a month, but I anticipate having the copies available to start shipping sooner than that. This will be about a $23 value, plus whatever the shipping amounts to. Consider it my thank you for reading! If you are one of the lucky winners, you will receive an e-mail from me confirming that you would like to claim your prize. However, in the event that you actually don’t care about the book and you just wanted to give me $50 for Christmas, kindly let me know, and I will pass the prize on to the next happy subscriber!
With that, here’s a preview of my rational proposal for Sam Harris.
I believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, I believe these propositions not because they make me feel good, but because I think they are true.
Readers may recognize this little credo as a first-person adaptation of Sam Harris’s opening paragraph for his 2006 Letter to a Christian Nation. This work was addressed, in some sense, to people like me. This opening paragraph, with “You” replacing “I,” was intended as a fair and accurate characterization of Harris’s opponents, however (in)consistently that fairness and accuracy were maintained in the rest of the work. So, I own the soft impeachment. I am a Christian. I accept the tenets of the Christian faith. My problem with Sam Harris is that I do not think the word “faith” means what Sam Harris thinks it means.
When asked to define “faith,” Christians often point to the book of Hebrews, chapter eleven. In the King James version, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” Elaborating further, some might make the word synonymous with “trust.” I have “faith” in God in the same sense that I have faith in the pilot of my next trans-Atlantic flight. All of my senses, reasoning faculties, and prior experience lead me to conclude that the pilot is reliable, so I trust him. I have “faith” in him.
But notice what faith is not, according to this definition: It is not an alternative to reason. It is not a belief formed without evidence. And while embracing faith in the Christian God certainly involves a deeper decision-making process than the decision to buy a sensible used car, it is also not a decision to be made lightly or irrationally. If we are asked why we think it is true, then we are compelled to answer that question in a way that will be accessible to any good-faith inquirer of any religious or non-religious persuasion. We are compelled to explain why, in our judgment, Christianity gives the truest account of reality at all levels of existence, even if we face questions where we must admit our knowledge is incomplete. We reach this conclusion not only by studying the books of the Bible, but by studying the book of Nature, which the Bible itself points to as a source of truthful revelation (see Romans 1).
Suffice it to say, once I read past Sam’s opening lines, I find it progressively more difficult to recognize my own perspective, which is the perspective of many of my fellow Christians past and present. It is this perspective that I intend to present in this essay.
Faith vs. Reason?
In Harris’s taxonomy of Christianity, there are apparently two and only two kinds of Christians: fundamentalists and liberals. Harris has never regarded the latter as serious opposition for his purposes, because they tend to reject almost as much of the Bible as he does. By contrast, he argues that there’s a certain strength in the fundamentalist position, a certain integrity. Of course, he is notoriously unhesitant to heap scorn upon it. But in some curious sense, he respects it.
I may not identify as a fundamentalist myself, but I have no desire to follow Harris’s example and pile on yet more scorn. In secular and Christian circles alike, the very label “fundamentalist” frequently serves as little more than a rhetorical conversation-stopper, a way of signaling one’s cleverness while avoiding real substantive engagement. Alvin Plantinga’s tongue-in-cheek definition remains the most memorable: “a stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine.” (Plantinga 2000, 245)
Nevertheless, there are elements of fundamentalism that are vulnerable to some of Harris’s critiques. Passages like this may be grating in tone, but they contain the seed of a legitimate argument:
Along with most Christians, you believe that mortals like ourselves cannot reject the morality of the Bible. We cannot say, for instance, that God was wrong to drown most of humanity in the flood of Genesis, because this is merely the way it seems from our limited point of view. And yet, you feel that you are in a position to judge that Jesus is the Son of God, that the Golden Rule is the height of moral wisdom, and that the Bible is not itself brimming with lies. You are using your own moral intuitions to authenticate the wisdom of the Bible—and then, in the next moment, you assert that we human beings cannot possibly rely upon our own intuitions to rightly guide us in the world; rather, we must depend upon the prescriptions of the Bible. You are using your own moral intuitions to decide that the Bible is the appropriate guarantor of your moral intuitions. Your own intuitions are still primary, and your reasoning is circular. (Harris 2006, 48-49)
Harris is correct that some strains of Christianity can tend towards this circular trap when they issue blanket condemnations of “fallible human intuition,” including moral intuition. … This deep skepticism…informs fideism, the belief that faith truly is in tension with reason and that to seek evidential justification is to disrespect “the gift.” Earnest Christians, seeking to resolve concrete questions in areas such as scriptural reliability, have too often done so in communities that were predisposed not to assist them in that search. The injunction to “just have faith” is of little encouragement when the very grounding for one’s faith is in flux.
However, it is one thing to observe that this is the socio-cultural expression of “faith” in some particular sub-strains of conservative Christianity. It is another thing to conflate “faith” with “belief sans evidence” on behalf of all conservative Christians everywhere. Harris does this freely throughout his work. “The core of science,” he writes in Letter to a Christian Nation, “is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty. It is time we acknowledged a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t. Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.” (Harris 2006, 64-65)
In context, he is lambasting a statement from the National Academy of Sciences that science and religion embody two different “ways of knowing.” As Stephen J. Gould would put it, they are “separate magisteria,” treating separate kinds of questions. Harris, quite understandably, is not impressed. His litany of religious truth claims may be a bit crude (including the shallow assertion that if you “don’t believe the right things about God,” you will suffer eternally—thus implying that one might earnestly send oneself to hell by the equivalent of forgetting to check the right box on a divine list). But he is not wrong to point out that religious truth claims are still truth claims, purporting to be factual statements about the nature of reality. As such, they should be as honestly appraised as any other statements about reality.
So far, so reasonable. But Harris doesn’t stop there. A little further on, he concludes:
The conflict between science and religion is reducible to a simple fact of human cognition and discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Everyone recognizes that to rely upon “faith” to decide specific questions of historical fact is ridiculous—that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation with the archangel Gabriel, or to any other religious dogma. It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail. (Harris 2006, 66)
Here once again, we see the automatic conflation of “faith” with “anti-reason.” Harris is, of course, entitled to his belief that religious truth claims are in fact poorly evidenced. But many serious Christians have historically begged to differ.
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